Woodcarving – A Famous Thai Art Form

Woodcarving can be regarded as a characteristic decorative Thai art form. It reflects the fertility and vitality of nature in technique and subject matter. Wood has been primarily used for furniture and religious objects, and thus not so much for creating Buddha statues. Hence, woodcarvers have sought their inspiration primarily in nature and mythology since they have been free of restrictive iconography.

Thai Woodcarving

Carved facade at Thawan Duchanee's Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu)

Carved wooden facade at Thawan Duchanee’s Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

Woodcarvers have employed a composite technique that allowed them to carve single parts of a work separately and later assemble them. Thus, the art work appears spontaneous and effortless, hence paralleling the creativity of nature.

In tropical countries like Thailand, wood is an abundant material that is also considered to have a kind of spiritual quality. Therefore, trees are considered to house spirits. Among these spirits, the most well-known to Thai people are Phra Sai (the spirit of the banyan tree) and Phrase Pho (the spirit of the pipal tree). These are frequently mentioned in Thai literature and are included in the group of heavenly spirits. The other two famous spirits are Nang Tani (the woman spirit of the banana tree) and Nan Takian who is the female spirit of the hopea tree. Nevertheless, teak wood is preferred to other wooden material because it is easy to carve and relatively resistant to the elements and insects.

Large Carving on Wall at the Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bikkhu)

Thai woodcarving from the most recent past: large carving on wall at the Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

The earliest Thai woodcarving pieces date from the 16th century. The high-point of this Thai art form is found in images of lesser religious figures which date from the late Ayutthaya period, i.e. the 17th to early 18th century. For instance, the collection of the National Museum in Bangkok includes such fine pieces like the mythical dancer and celestial swan Kinnari (in Thai: กินรี).

Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

The Kinnari is a mythological figure, an inhabitant of the Himaphan (Himalaya) forest, that is half-human and half-swan. It is a symbol of feminine beauty, grace and cultural accomplishment. The Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok is 110cm high and dates from the 17th to early 18th century. Its tail is in a stylized design which is called ‘kranok’. It is often found in Thai art.

Peaceful head wood carving by Thawan Duchanee at Baan Dam (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu)

‘Peaceful head’ by Thawan Duchanee at Baan Dam (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

In fact, there had been a rich developing tradition of woodcarving in Thailand over prior centuries. However, earlier works, before the 17th century, did not survive. Nonetheless, this amazing workmanship continued into the early Bangkok period. Nevertheless, in the most recent past, Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee also created stunning wall and façade carvings at Baan Dam, the Black House Museum in Chiang Rai.

Even today, woodcarving is a prominent art in Thailand. Thus, the finest wood sculptures have been closely associated with architecture, animals being a favourite subject. You can buy objects carved from wood at special markets like the cultural and craftsman’s market in Chiang Mai. The following video shows you which kind of objects are created and available at these markets. In addition, it also relates something about the history of this art form (in Thai).

By the way, there is also a new privately-owned museum named Woodland in Nakhom Pathom Province. The presentation is about a fantasy land and Grandfather Teak who relates the story of the woodmen in thousands of elaborate woodcarvings. These sculptures are from a collection owned by Narong Thewphaingarm and his father. There are three areas in the exhibition: firstly, the Story of Woodland, with over 5,000 wooden objects, secondly, Woodland Village where you find restaurants and souvenir shops, and thirdly, the Resort, which is the former residence of the owner’s family.

Woodmen room at the Woodland museum (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Woodmen room at the Woodland museum (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Finally, we may say that Thai woodcarving has a great tradition in Thailand. It is a very elaborate, amazing and stunning craft that requires a lot of skill by the craftsman.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Treasures from The National Museum Bangkok, Selected by The National Museum Volunteers Group, 4th reprint 2006)

Media Review: Top 10 Bangkok by Ron Emmons & Alex Robinson

Today’s media review is about Top 10 Bangkok by Ron Emmons (texts) & Alex Robinson (photographs) (ISBN: 978-3-7342-0510-1). This guidebook was published by Dorling Kindersley Verlag GmbH, Munich. My review copy is the 3rd and newest edition (2014/2015). This book is in German language, comprises 128 pages and costs 9,99 EUR.

Top 10 Bangkok

Top 10 Bangkok German Cover 2014

Top 10 Bangkok German Cover 2014

However, there is also a corresponding English edition of this guide called DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Bangkok written by the same author and published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London which is the partner company of Dorling Kindersley Verlag, Munich. The latest edition of the English version is from 2014. You may take a look inside the book here.

Top 10 Bangkok is a comprehensive travel guide with compact Top 10 lists, detailed maps and more than 250 colour photographs. Hence, the guide is structured in three sections: Bangkok’s Top 10, Around Town (in German: ‘Stadtteile’, meaning different areas of the city) and Streetsmart (in German: ‘Reise-Infos’, i.e. travel information).

The guide names ten highlights that the traveller should visit when going to Bangkok. These highlights are:

  • Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew
  • National museum
  • Wat Pho
  • the Klongs
  • Dusit park
  • floating market (Damnoen Saduak)
  • Chatuchak weekend market
  • Jim Thompson House
  • Wat Arun
  • Ayutthaya

In addition, this guide provides information about important historical events, museums & art galleries, shopping, markets, restaurants, bars & clubs but also about entertainment like theatre & cabaret. What is more, there is also information about special attractions for children, festivals, beaches nearby Bangkok, sports, spas and Buddhist temples.

The section Around Town (‘Stadtteile’) is divided into historic district (Old Town), Chinatown, Downtown, Greater Bangkok and the outskirts of the city (Beyond Bangkok).

As far as travel information (Streetsmart) is concerned, there is advice about travel preparation and planning your journey & arriving in Bangkok. Further there is info about Bangkok on a budget, money, banking & communication, safety & health. In addition, the guide lists things to avoid but also provides shopping, hotel and restaurant recommendations.

Furthermore, the guidebook also includes a phrase book with some basic Thai vocabulary and an extra-map (city map, skytrain map & additional tips for a perfect day off in BKK).

In my opinion, this book is a comprehensive, elaborate and well structured guide. In particular, I welcome that Bangkok’s Top 10 highlights are again each divided into Top 10. For instance, the Dusit park is subdivided into 10 impressions and experiences: 1. Vimanmek Palace, 2. Royal Plaza, 3. Ananta Samakhom throne hall, 4. Abhisek Dusit throne hall, 5. Photography Museum, 6. Royal Elephant Museum, 7, Clock Museum, 8. Textile Museum, 9, Sea Pavilion and 10. Dusit Zoo. Hence, you cannot really miss or overlook an attraction.

In addition, I also find the extra map very useful because it lists some of the important attractions, malls, markets and restaurants and tells you how to get there by public transport (i.e. Skytrain, Metro, bus, ferry).

Finally, I can highly recommend Top 10 Bangkok, in particular to everyone who goes to BKK for the first time. On the whole, this is a very practical and compact guide. Since the book is lightweight and small, it fits in every pocket and bag 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(P.S. if you’re looking for a compact Thailand travel guide, check out Vis-à-vis Thailand)